Number Crunched

"Let me set up a, what do you call it, a hypothetical for you," Dawn Nettles says in her Texas drawl, her voice roughened around the edges by her daily pack of Misty menthols. "Let's say you're the boss of a company, and you give one of your employees a company credit card." She leans forward in her seat, her eyes sparkling in anticipation. The hypothetical employee, it turns out, charges a personal item on the card, and the card is taken away. As Nettles lays out the scenario, this nefarious individual sneaks into his boss' office, steals the credit card out of her desk and goes out and uses it again.

Even a hypothetical boss has no choice but to fire such a miscreant. Hearing this, Nettles leans back in her seat, a look of profound satisfaction on her face. "Not at the Texas Lottery Commission," she says. "At the Texas Lottery Commission, they get promoted to a fancy new job." A statement like that is bound to perk up a reporter's ears, a reaction Nettles provokes with Pavlovian regularity among the press corps in Austin.

Nettles is owner, publisher and reporter for LottoReport.com, a sprawling Web site devoted to all things Texas Lottery. The 54-year-old Garland woman puts a staggering amount of time into the site, constantly updating reams of numbers such as weekly sales figures dating to the lottery's 1992 inception or every number in every drawing from every lottery game since 1998. She also mails out a biweekly newsletter, and says she has about 5,000 subscribers at $37.50 a year. On drawing nights, which is to say six nights a week, she can be up until 1 a.m. or later waiting for official results to be released, but she is back at work in her home office at 8 a.m., tracking legislation, searching for news or touching base with a stable of inside sources at the Lottery Commission.

As a result, Nettles has converted herself into the only real expert on the Texas lottery not employed there, a perfect third-party source for reporters covering the lottery. "She's basically it," says George Kuempel, a statehouse reporter for The Dallas Morning News until his retirement last year. "I think everybody who was on that beat used her." In fact, Nettles has been quoted in at least 68 lottery-related stories since 1994, in virtually every major Texas newspaper.

Nettles' greatest joy is digging up dirt on the Lottery Commission itself, from the credit card-stealing tale to juicy tips about pornography on commission computers and lesbian love triangles. Her motivation, she says, is protecting her readers, most of them regular lottery customers. But her list of constituents shifts with the issues. When she talks about flagging Lotto Texas sales, she'll speak on retailers' behalf, but when it comes to scratch-off games and video lottery terminals, she pleads the case of the low-income Texans such games exploit. Nettles' stance on the lottery itself constantly seems to be shifting, but she is unequivocal on the people who oversee it: "I want to take the Lottery Commission down," she says.

Dealing with the Lottery Commission is a daily exercise in frustration for Nettles. Information freely handed out to the general public takes weeks to reach her, she says--if the commission admits having it at all. "They lie to me every day," she states flatly. Kuempel and other reporters have occasionally passed Nettles information that she has been denied. "They'd do everything they could to slow her down," Kuempel says. "I thought they were being real petty with her."

"I'm just so tired of them that I just want to see them fall flat on their faces--which they will," she says. "I haven't missed a lick yet, since 1992."

The Texas Lottery Commission certainly has taken its licks over the years, in the form of scandals and lawsuits. The lottery's first executive director, Nora Linares, was fired in 1997 after it came to light that her boyfriend had been hired as a consultant for Gtech, the Rhode Island-based company that operates the lottery on the state's behalf. Linares sued the commission. Linares' replacement, Lawrence Littwin, lasted just five months. He was fired after he began investigating allegations that Gtech was illegally funneling money to state legislators. Littwin sued Gtech. When Gtech lost its contract to run the lottery, the company sued the commission. In a fitting postscript, Linares' boyfriend sued Gtech in 2001 for back wages.

The dirt over that scandal was still fresh when the next one exploded at the commission. In September 2002, Linda Cloud, who had succeeded Littwin as executive director, admitted under oath that she had lied to reporters the previous spring. She resigned, and then charged that Governor Rick Perry's top aides had ordered her to lie to the press. When they denied it, she sued.

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Rick Kennedy